Django Unchained, like Quentin Tarantino’s fantastic previous outing, 2009’s Inglouriuous Basterds, takes us back to a time of important historical significance. This time around, it’s the old west – a few years prior to the Civil War – 1858, to be exact. Tarantino’s chosen timeline sets the backdrop for controversy, questioning the social norms and pervasiveness of 19th century slavery in a very up front, in your face manner. What’s likable about most Tarantino movies is that, regardless of how you view the sub-genre themes he tends to sticks to, he’s not afraid to question social and political norms and to do it in the most over-the-top way. Tarantino is a master screenwriter, and the flow and genius of his dialogue helps create memorial characters and performances that really pop, which helps set the mood for most of the movie. Ever-present here is Tarantino’s quick wit, snappy banter, and interesting insights that not only makes his characters and overall story incredibly likable, but also innately human.
As I mentioned earlier, Django Unchained draws most of its inspiration from more obscure movie sub-genres that I doubt most folks have delved themselves into as much as Tarantino. There are two direct influences going on here: first, the Sergio Leone-style Spaghetti Westerns made so famous in the 60’s and 70’s — that is, movies along the lines of Sergio Corbucci’s, “Django,” made in 1968 and starring Franco Nero (who, by the way, makes a cameo here), rather than pictures like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (although this movie does have a fleeting reference to that Clint Eastwood-starring classic). Second, and perhaps more crucially, the even more obscure blaxploitation Western, of which some examples would be The Legend of N—er Charlie from 1972 and Boss N—er from 1975. (Don’t look at me; I didn’t title the movies, that’s what they’re called!) From these various inspirations, Tarantino is able to create a movie with outstanding dialogue, intriguing characters, an (extremely) varied score, and outlandishly violent action sequences that he has become so well-known for. It fits very well into his collection of excellent movies that push the envelope compared to what could be considered standard fare with most other American cinema outings.
All-in-all, it’s a fun and violent movie with a lot of use of the “N” word – but I didn’t feel that that detracted from the movie at all – quite the opposite, in fact. The use of the word helps to paint a mental image of what the general mindset of the pre-Civil War era Southerners must have thought at the time – that African Americans truly were viewed as sub-human. That aside, if there was anything keeping this movie from being a full-on 5-Star Movie in my opinion, it was two things:
- The death of Tarantino’s longtime editor, Sally Menke, who passed away in 2010, is sorely missed here. With a total running time that falls just short of 3-hours – I felt there were far too many “meh” scenes that could have easily been cut from the final product. Because of this oversight on Tarantino’s end, the pacing of the movie, at times, feels too sporadic and banal. Not only that, but there were numerous technical inaccuracies and plot holes that were never accounted for. I won’t go into all of them that I happened to catch while watching the film, but I’m still having a hard time deciding whether it was intentional or not. On the one hand, this is an homage to Spaghetti Westerns, and things like plots details and coherency was often (unfortunately), overlooked. But on the other hand, Tarantino is usually very precise in what he films and how he is going to use it in the editing room (again, we miss Sally Menke’s talent here) – but I felt that perhaps he bit off more than he could chew here, so he couldn’t possibly tie in all of plot holes together because the movie would end up being over 4 hours long! So for me, the jury is still out on whether or not the plot holes and technical lapses were intentional.
- Jamie Foxx’s stale, dead-pan acting job. Jamie Foxx is a great actor – he was phenomenal in Ray and The Soloist – but here he plays Django as a one-dimensional character – unable to adapt and change with the events of the movie that should affect his character the most profoundly – slowly transforming from a slave to a “fastest gun in the West” bounty hunter. He just didn’t sell me on his performance.
Besides Foxx, most of the other performances were not only solid, but in my humble opinion, quite outstanding. Samuel L. Jackson’s take on his character, Stephen, was poignant and reminiscent of what some might consider a stereotypical take on an empowered head-of-household type servant – but it really worked here. Two other standouts for me were Leonardo’s DiCaprio’s portrayal of the plantation owner, Calvin Candie, as the wild yet reserved lord of the manor, with a demeanor that truly was on the edge of insanity during the 19th century slave era; and Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of the quick-tongued Dr. Schultz. There’s something about Waltz’s performance here that makes him so damn likable and appealing – he has true charisma on screen. Same could be said for his Oscar-winning performance as the Jew-Hunter Nazi in Inglourious Basterds.
Overall – a well-made Tarantino flick. All of the classic elements of Tarantino are there, so if you’re a fan of his previous work, this is sure to please. Even if you aren’t a Tarantino fan, I still think you’d enjoy the movie, if for nothing more than the performances and set pieces (some of the locations and overall cinematography are just so visually stunning).